Monday, June 8, 2015

Whalemen and Waterproofing VI: On Graceful Failure

If I learned nothing else aboard the Corwith Cramer in 2014, it was how to fail gracefully. In everyday life, most of us have the luxury of stewing over our mistakes. You screw up at work, and it weighs on you for days. You get short-tempered with a friend, and you can't think about anything else.

On a ship, or at least the ships on which I've sailed, it's easy to make mistakes. And, boy, did I make a lot of them. I mistook halyards for downhauls, clove hitches for cow hitches, euphausiids for mysids, and, in one particularly embarrassing incident, the bunk of someone who had just fallen asleep for the bunk of someone I was supposed to wake up for a 3 AM watch change.

But at sea, things move very fast, and you have to account for your mistakes and move on quickly. A single day aboard the Cramer included five watch periods, so before you knew it, you had gone off watch, gotten a bite to eat and a nap, and come back on deck as if it was a whole new day and your mistakes long in the past. You learn, in short, to let your mistakes go, hoping that you can do better next time.

And so I thought it would be fitting to end this series on nineteenth-century maritime waterproofing techniques by discussing failure.

When I started this project, I had ambitions to recreate entire waterproof garments. But as I discussed in a previous post, many of the most intriguing period waterproofing recipes include toxic or unavailable ingredients. For a while, I considered attempting to recreate period paint- or oil-based waterproofings, but the more research I did, the more I realized that any such effort would include levels of compromise - regarding chemical ingredients, application techniques, and, not least of all, personal safety - that surpassed the payoff potential of such work. In a presentation at the New England regional conference of the Association for Living History, Farm, and Agricultural Museums this past March, I discussed the potential of using the inaccurate processes behind creating things like waterproof garments as interpretive tools alongside traditional living history interpretation. I really believe that historic sites should be more transparent about the choices they make, even if these sometimes involve inaccurate reproduction techniques like machine sewing or synthetic paints.

But for now, this project involved just me and my home kitchen, and I realized I couldn't answer a lot of my research questions (how waterproof was white lead?) with experimental archaeology.

But I didn't want to complete this project having only produced blog posts, not physical things. I had, after all, found at least one recipe that seemed straightforward and safe. I discussed it in my previous post on tarpaulin hats, and if you'll recall, I left off just as I was about to combine various compounds into sealing wax, one of two key ingredients in the hat-waterproofing recipe.

Here's where things got a little hairy. And, I apologize, I didn't take the time to stop for photographs. In his Ten Thousand Recipes, Mackenzie never explains how to combine turpentine, shellac, colophony, and lampblack to create sealing wax, but I think it's a safe bet that it involved melting them together to form a homogenous block.

What I realized, after repeated experiments on the stove top and even in a small toaster oven, was that  rosin (or at least the rosin I was using) has a strikingly peculiar tendency to burn before it melts. This discovery led to a kitchen filled with acrid smoke and some frantic internet searches about the toxicity of colophony fumes. The best I could do, in the end, was produce a flaky wad of roughly combined "wax."

But I still hoped that this would be good enough for the waterproofing recipe. After all, it said to powderize the sealing wax, and figuring this would mix the ingredients even more, I dutifully ground up half an ounce (a pitiful fraction of the massive amount of "wax" I had produced). I placed it in two ounces of ethyl alcohol in a glass jar "near a fire" just as Mackenzie said. I waited. The liquid warmed up. But the wax refused to dissolve as he said it should. With no sand for the "sand heat" he mentioned, I put the jar in a small pot of hot water on the stove, a double boiler arrangement I figured was not unlike a sand heat. 

And I waited. 

But no matter how hot I got the jar, even up to the point when the alcohol began evaporating and then boiling (173.1° F, apparently), the "wax" refused to dissolve. At best, it seemed to get rather soft and give the concoction the general appearance of a jar of watered-down coffee grounds.

I tried giving the result a whirl, just in case I was missing something. But the result was not even close to the "beautiful gloss equal to new" Mackenzie promised. I was right. It still looked like watered-down coffee grounds.

Frustration crept over me. And that's not something you want creeping around a kitchen full of boiling water and semi-molten pine rosin.

But then I realized something. It's called experimental archaeology. And experiments fail. 

I don't know where the problem was - with one of my ingredients (the unmeltable rosin, perhaps?), with my technique (does a sand heat work alchemical miracles?), or with the recipe itself (didn't any of the many publishers test this recipe before they plagiarized it?) - but there was certainly a wrench in the works somewhere. This was a failure.

But I usually learn more from failures than successes. In this project, I learned all sorts of things. 

I read sources I'd never heard of before, handled rare examples of waterproof garments in museum collections, and corresponded with curators, chemists, and collectors who contributed pieces to this puzzle. 

I discovered that the world of nineteenth-century waterproofing was both simpler and more complex than our own. By all accounts, you could make a pretty decent raincoat in the fo'c's'le of a ship if you had some canvas and a bucket of paint. The modern raincoat I took on my ocean voyage in 2014 may be more waterproof than older ones, but creating it, much less understanding its chemical components, is well beyond my abilities. Not to mention that it's become nigh on impossible to locate once commonplace ingredients such as spermaceti, natural rubber, and spirits of wine.

In the course of working on this project, I had rare chances to find out exactly what it was like to get wet at sea, and I have a newfound understanding for why nineteenth-century sailors would have risked a bit of lead poisoning for that evasive element of human comfort, staying warm and dry. 

At sea, I learned that failure is inevitable. The men and women I sailed with whom I most admire owned up to their mistakes and did better the next time. I haven't quite figured out how to fail gracefully. I certainly would have preferred to conclude this project wearing a shiny, waterproof straw hat. But I'm learning. And I know that there will be lots of opportunities to practice.

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